Imagine how pissed you'd be if you bought a Corvette, drove it around, and thought, "This seems slow to me." Then, you open the hood to discover that 49% of the parts in the engine bay actually came from a Dodge Neon.
Now imagine you head down to the dealership, veins popping out of the side of your head and ready to raise hell with the scumlord who sold you the car. But when you get there, he shrugs and says, "Well, the vehicle you bought is mostly Corvette, so we're allowed to label and sell it as such under federal law." I'm being dramatic, of course, but thank god other things in the real world don't work the same way that most ryes do.
The Rye Difference
Before we get into the lack of transparency that defines this category, let's start with the difference between the taste of rye in reference to bourbon, since the comparison seems all but inevitable.
A prototypical "high rye" will have a flavor wholly unique to liquordom. Rye is often described as floral and spicy. Typically, rye whiskey will have the flavors and aromas of liquorice, cinnamon, black pepper, and dill. It can sometimes be sweet like maple syrup or rich like dark chocolate. Sometimes it has the taste of caraway seeds and fresh ginger. "Robust" is a good word to describe rye.
In a side-by-side with your average bourbon, rye is less sweet and less vanilla-forward. It's also going to be less creamy and mouth-filling on the palate, with a slightly more astringent finish. It also has none of what I call "corn funk," a flavor that's part and parcel of many bourbons—a polarizing quality when it comes to bourbons, I find. I also find that the oak influence in rye is typically dialed back a bit, letting the spirit lead the way rather than the cask finishing, but that's as much my own gut-level, unsubstantiated opinion as it is anything else.
The short take-away: rye is worth drinking. It's less popular than bourbon, but no less deserving of your money.
Half 'n Half
Be forewarned that a great number of the "straight rye" whiskeys sold in the US market are only considered rye by the slimmest of majorities. If you've had Old Overholt, Sazerac Rye, Knob Creek Rye, or even the well-regarded Rittenhouse Rye, the mash bills are all 51% rye with the remainder of the grain used for distillation being corn and barley, typically. The industry joke is to refer to them as "barely legal" ryes.
Now, can such ryes be very tasty? Definitely. However, your palate will have to be pretty good to be able to suss out the nuances between a "high rye" bourbon containing 35% rye and a "straight rye" at a 51% rye content. This isn't good or bad news one way or another if you like bourbon a whole lot, but if you're looking for a different experience in your next bottle, you'd do well to find what I'd consider a more representative example.
Most of the time, distillers are strangely evasive when it comes to telling you the mash bill for rye whiskies. I can only speculate reasons as to why. Maybe it's that we actually would feel like the victims of some low-grade bait-and-switch if we knew we only came home with half a rye. Also, corn is cheap in the US thanks to heavy government subsidies. The more corn a distiller can use in a mash bill, probably the better when it comes to turning a profit.
It might also be that the distillers know that going big on corn produces a characteristically sweet flavor drinkers like: especially bourbon drinkers. Part of it could be trying to protect consumers from themselves—maybe they really only want a slightly different flavor from what they're used to drinking. As you might have guessed from my extremely generalized tasting notes earlier, a strong bottle of rye has a lot going on. Not everyone might be willing to take the ride.
But if we're ready to saddle up for the true experience, how do we find out what's what? I typically research ryes I intend to purchase. Sometimes I look at the bottle, but of the three ryes I have on my shelf now, none of them are especially helpful. As a buyer, I gravitate to the mash bills where the distillate base is 95% rye. Thankfully, many people on the internet care a lot more than I do in cataloging what's what, and a Google search can fill in the rest. Generally, if I'm not sure what I'm getting, I don't buy it.
So what's good?
Although this list is by no means exhaustive, I'd recommend all of the following.
Lot 40 Canadian Rye - The end-all, be-all for Rye, as far as I'm concerned. With a mash bill of 100% rye and literally nothing else, it's a great study in what the best ryes can deliver. Depending on your location, it may run around $50, but I'd argue it's worth it.
Bulleit Rye - True, it's made by MGP / LDI, which is a massive distiller based in Indiana. However, it's usually not much more than $20, and has a 95% rye mash bill. If you want to explore the category for cheap, start here. A good hit of dill and spice.
Rittenhouse Rye - What? After all of that bitching, I'd recommend one of the 51% "barely legal" ryes? Sure! Rittenhouse is a darling of bartenders because it's good for not just the price, but because it's just so damned good in general. Rittenhouse is a great way to split the difference between bourbons and ryes if you want to take a baby step towards the category and have a mixer that goes well in any whiskey-based cocktail.
By the way, clicky here to see all the ryes we've reviewed thus far. Ryes are super tasty and one should definitely be on your bar shelf at any given moment.